Column: Science, Superstition and the Spirit Cave Mummy

Somewhere, Carl Sagan is smiling.

The late astronomer was wrong about many things. But the criticism he leveled at the choice many Americans make to live in a "demon-haunted

world," where astrology, mysticism and folk tales have more legitimacy than sound science, was certainly on target. A recent decision reached by a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official in Nevada would come as good news to Sagan - as it does to those who believe that politics should not sidetrack the pursuit of knowledge.

The Spirit Cave Mummy, discovered near Fallon, currently resides at the Nevada State Museum. It's been there since it was first unearthed in 1940, but the naturally mummified body didn't receive widespread attention until 1994. That's when extensive testing revealed that the mummy is much older -- and much more unique -- than originally thought. After the stunning announcement that the body is approximately 9,400 years old, teams of researchers from across the nation lined up to study the remains of the middle-aged man who lived at about the time prehistoric Lake Lahontan began to recede.

But they weren't simply interested in analyzing a well-preserved body of a very old Indian. In fact, it is unlikely that the man was an "Indian" at all. The mummy's origins are still largely unknown, but what Nevada State Museum anthropologist Amy Dansie calls his "compellingly Caucasoid traits" cannot be overlooked. The man found in Spirit Cave had a long, small face and a large cranium, in sharp contrast to the "Mongoloid" features of American Indians. The mummy most closely resembles a member of the Ainu, a minority group in Japan with dramatically un-Japanese physical features.

There is even a possibility that the Spirit Cave Mummy is somehow connected to the Norse people of Scandinavia.

Intriguing? You bet it is. But not long after these findings were revealed, more comprehensive testing of the body -- including DNA analysis -- became off limits. Exercising their power under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe halted further testing of the mummy.

In 1996, the tribe filed a "claim of cultural affiliation" under NAGPRA. In other words, the Paiutes claimed the Spirit Cave Mummy as one of their own.

The science supporting their position was flimsy -- and the tribe consistently refused to acknowledge the voluminous evidence which undercuts their claim of affiliation -- but the Paiutes' demand blocked additional testing. Even worse, tribal leaders stated their intention to not only reclaim, but rebury the mummy.

As it had in the past, NAGPRA, a well-intentioned law designed to respect Native American gravesites and repatriate remains housed in museums, became a tool of the facts-be-damned worldview of radical Indians. Many tribal leaders do not accept the science which shows that their ancestors arrived in North America via a land bridge from northern Asia. And since they aren't willing to concede the land-bridge theory, they certainly aren't willing to admit that an earlier people -- perhaps from Japan, or even Europe -- may have existed in North America prior to their ancestors' arrival.

But evidently the BLM's Nevada director, Bob Abbey, is. Last month he ruled that the mummy has no affiliation with the Pyramid Lake Paiutes. "After more than four years of consultation with the tribe, analyzing the information and reviewing policy, I feel it's time to make this determination," Abbey said. "Although this determination is disappointing to the tribes, I am committed to a continuing dialogue with them on this and any other issue that comes up as we continue to determine the affiliation of human remains from BLM-managed lands."

Not all federal officials have been as bold as Abbey. In Washington state, Kennewick Man, a skeleton with approximately the same age and features as the Spirit Cave Mummy, has also captured anthropologists' interest. It's taken a class-action lawsuit to stop the federal government from handing the skeleton over to a coalition of tribes seeking to rebury it. (Editor's note: The Interior Department announced Monday a decision to turn over Kennewick Man to the five tribes claiming him. The lawsuit is still pending.)

Faulty NAGPRA decisions have also blocked the study of ancient, naturally shed human hair in Montana and allowed the reburial of 10,000-year-old, non-Indian bones in Idaho.

Abbey's ruling doesn't guarantee that Nevada's famous mummy will soon reveal all his secrets. The BLM official has only determined that the mummy was no Paiute. It's now up to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to decide what to do with the remains. One wonders whether the man who once told the story of how a young Hopi friend "taught me that the blue mountain was,

truly, a sacred place" will base his decision on science or political correctness.

D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute's opinion magazine. He can be contacted through NPRI's website, NPRI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank which finds private solutions for public problems facing Nevada, the West and the nation.


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